Remembering Danny Oakes
July 18, 1911 - January 13, 2007
Story by Richard Parks and Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Danny Oakes was born on July 18, 1911, in Santa Barbara, California, and passed away on January 13, 2007. In his 95 years of living, Danny made a lot of friends, and out lived 5 wives, and it was a much younger crowd that met to pay their respects to this wonderful man from the Golden age of oval track racing. Danny still has family in Santa Barbara, but he left for Los Angeles in the early 1930’s to break into big time auto racing. He had raced at tracks in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, but the action was further south. A friend of his, a supposed rum runner during Prohibition, gave him a start as a mechanic at the old American Legion Ascot oval track in Los Angeles, one of the premier tracks in the country. Oakes finally earned a ride at Ascot in the sprint car races in 1932, but as good as he was, he could barely keep up with the Miller-engined cars. He was making headway though and learning how to drive with the best racers in the country. His competition was steep, and included Ernie Triplett, Earl Mansell, Wild Bill Cummings,
Les Spangler, Bob Carey, Kelly Petillo, Arvol Brunmier, Francis Quinn, Rex Mays, Al Gordon, Wilbur Shaw, Stubby Stubblefield and the usual lineup of Indy 500 drivers. The racing season would start on the Pacific Coast in January, and the racers worked their way East and North to other racetracks as the weather warmed, and then back to Florida or California in the fall and winter.
Legion Ascot was located in the hills around Lincoln Heights, just south of Pasadena. The track was fast, too fast for the cars at the time and tragic accidents were a regular occurrence. Danny used to say that all they had in those days was cloth or leather helmets, no seat belts, restraints or roll cages for protection. Many of the drivers believed that if the cars crashed or tipped over that the best safety maneuver was to roll out of the car and onto the track rather than stay with the car. This worked until the next car ran over the sprawled driver. The toll began to rise and the newspapers and public began to turn against the American Legion who operated the racecourse, and after 12 short years, the track closed in 1936.
Oakes left racing for a short time, then became enamored with a new type of racing, with cars that were half the size of the big sprinters. These were called Midget cars, and they suited Danny perfectly. Oakes was a robust and strong man, but was only about five feet six inches, and he fit comfortably into these new racecars. The Midget raced on dirt and did well on short and long racecourses. Easy to turn in the corners, low in weight, with drivers that often struggled to reach 130 pounds, Midget racing gained huge followings. Drivers could spin the cars, regain direction and come roaring back. It was gladiatorial racing at its best, and crowds of 60,000 or more filled many of the larger stadiums. Some drivers had their own style and flourish, and could kick up the dirt clods and send them back up into the stands. High-banked tracks provided extra thrills, as it wasn’t unusual for the cars to literally come from nowhere and fly over another car. Drivers never knew where the cars were behind them. You couldn’t look or you would fly into the infield or hit the wall.
Danny drove the Hogan Offy powered car in the late 1930’s, but the car never had enough power, nor was the set-up right for him. He also feuded with Hogan’s wife, who felt he wasn’t the driver for the car. This was one of the few times Danny did not impress a lady. A great part of Oakes later success was his style, and ability to impress people. Danny was a fantastic dancer, and swing was his specialty. When not racing or working, he could be found at the ballrooms with his dates and friends, dancing to the sounds of the Big Bands. He impressed people, men and women alike, with a charm that was decidedly witty and urbane. He dressed well, and he danced well, and he had no trouble making friends wherever he went. Danny had his clothes tailored and spent the money to impress. He was earning more money as a race driver than he could have as a laborer. His suits had to have the buttons low so that it emphasized his muscular chest and made him look taller. They named him ‘Dapper Danny’ off the track, and ‘Poison Oakes’ on the track. Rarely did anyone ever see anything but a gentleman when he wasn’t racing, but he told me once that he “was a real bastard on the racecourse.” That is hard to believe, knowing him as I did, but the other drivers didn’t make up the name ‘Poison’ without a good reason.
Just as Oakes was making his way up the ranks in the Midget class, World War II broke out and the government closed down the tracks to save fuel, tires and steel for the war effort. The racers accepted the curtailment of their sport and joined the war in various ways. Danny went to work for Lockheed Aircraft as a flight inspector. Wages were good, the country was back to work after the great Depression, and long hours at the war plants could not stop Danny from kicking up his heels at the various ballrooms around the area. After the war, Hogan made the adjustments that Danny had asked him to, and lured Oakes back to racing. He won the 1945 Turkey Night Grand Prix, a grueling 150 lap race, overtaking a tiring Perry Grimm on the last lap of the race. Grimm told Danny that he was exhausted and couldn’t go another lap, and Oakes laughed and told Grimm “that I could have gone another 50 laps.” Danny always said that it was the exercise he got from ballroom dancing, and especially swing dancing that gave him the stamina to last in those long races. Oakes switched to a car owned by Johnny Balch, who had a stable of cars and good drivers and Danny began to thrive. He estimated that he had won over a hundred main events in his career, but Danny was what they called a money driver. His goal was to pace himself, learn the course and the other drivers and stay with the pack, up front, where he could place in the money and bring the car home. He often said that the trophy and ego of the victory weren’t as important to him as placing in the money and keeping the car fresh.
In those days a driver could find a race every day of the week and he raced all over California. He did very well at Gilmore Stadium, but he raced at Huntington Beach, Balboa Stadium, Hayward, Long Beach, Atlantic Stadium, Santa Maria, and tracks back east. “Those guys back East hated us California guys,” he used to say. “They thought we were full of it, and they weren’t going to see some West Coast guy come into their home track and take the prize away from them. One of them would always try and shove me into the wall. It was a real war when you went out of your home area and tried to compete. But I got my fair share of wins wherever I raced.” He often spoke of his greatest victory, the 100 lap main at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in 1946. He had the fastest qualifying time in any of the heats and so they inverted the 16-car field and put Oakes at the rear. Danny fought his way to the front as did his friend and sometimes racing partner, Duke Nalon. “We put on a real show that night, dueling head to head, passing all the other cars and never giving in. I noticed that everyone was
bunched up down low and I figured if I was going to win this race, I had better get to the outside, up high on the banked track and cut down low when I had the chance. Nalon figured the same thing and we had the fastest cars, and began our fight to the front. Finally, with Nalon leading I went high up on the bank and used the gravity to burst in front of Nalon and win that race. Years later I heard Nalon telling the same story only he told people that he went high up the bank and cut in front of me to take the checkered flag. I didn’t care, because the prize money was in my pocket and not in his.”
On July 1, 1947, in a mammoth 500-lap race at the Los Angeles Coliseum, in front of more that 60,000 screaming fans, Danny weaved and raced his way to apparent victory. The scoring of such a long race was a nightmare for the officials, and both Oakes and Johnnie Parsons claimed the victory and the prize money. Four days later the officials awarded the victory to Duane Carter, whom both Parsons and Oakes claimed had never passed them. Carole Landis, a sponsor and one of many movie stars that knew Oakes, filed a protest with the stewards, but did not prevail. Danny also had a part as one of the race car drivers in the 1950 Clark Gable/Barbara Stanwyck movie, To Please A Lady. With his dapper mustache, Danny looked very much like Clark Gable. Danny found time to take the Balch Offy-powered Midget to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where he set a record in his class that lasted four decades, at 139.8 mph. He won the AAA Southern California Midget Championship in 1947, and the USAC Pacific Coast Championship in 1959. In 1946 he just barely missed winning the championship driving for the Bill Krech Inglewood Tire Company, with Duke Nalon as his partner. His winnings that year came to a quarter of a million dollars, which was split among the owner and drivers. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money six decades later, but in the 1940’s a person could buy a nice home for $2500. They won the equivalent of 100 homes, and in today’s market, on the West Coast that would amount to around sixty million dollars.
Danny was taking home a great deal of money for those days, and unlike other drivers, he was investing a lot of his money, and still having a good time. Danny didn’t go after trophies and victories, he went after the prize money. He raced nearly every day and he traveled constantly. Danny married 5 times, and outlived all of his wives. “Five times, five times, five times,” he told Dick Mittman, “and they all died. I don’t know what happened. Danny had two daughters, Danelle and Dana. Danelle gave Danny a granddaughter, Kaitlyn. Dana gave Danny three grandchildren, Keegan, Hannah and Brady. Danny loved his family, but racing was his life and he was often on the road, away for long stretches of time. Danny often exclaimed how dangerous racing was and how fortunate he was to have survived so long without serious injury. His only close call came when he rolled his car. “I naturally hugged the steering wheel and ducked low and when they came to dig me out they all thought I was dead,” he said. He walked away with a broken collarbone and cuts. Part of the reason he avoided injury was that he avoided crowds and picked his spots. He was a cagey driver and once on the freeway he seemed visibly nervous. “I like the track better than this freeway traffic,” he said, “on the track the racers know how to drive.”
In 1952 Danny went to the Indy 500, and in a crowded field, he took a substandard car and nearly qualified in the Alberto Ascari Factory Ferrari. He tried again a year later in the Lindsay Hopkins roadster powered by a 255 C.I. Offy. He had better luck with old friend Johnny Balch’s sprint car, but again missed out by just a few hundredths of a second. Balch’s mechanic was a close friend with Ed Winfield, probably one of the top mechanics and innovators in motorsports racing. But Danny and the mechanic quarreled over the set up to the car, and again Oakes missed the race. Danny was a natural born race driver, and an even better mechanic. He began to impress people with his skills with a motor. He could hear the engine speak to him, even on the freeway, he could diagnose what was wrong with passing cars. He was the crew chief for Johnnie Tolan in 1957 and for Tolan and Mike Magill in 1959. In 1960 he set up Jim Hurtubise, and the car was two miles an hour faster than anyone else. That earned Oakes the 1960 Motor Trend Magazine Mechanic of the Year Award, and a ring from the Indy 500 that he proudly wore to all the reunions that he attended with me over the years. He was the crew chief for Bill Cheesebourg in 1961, and took a year off in 1962. He returned to the Indy 500 in 1963 to be the crew chief for Troy Ruttman, and in 1964 for Johnny White. His last year at Indy was in 1965 for Paul Goldsmith, and then he had enough of racing.
He retired to his garage and to building engines for offshore Tunnel Hull boats, and also raced them for about ten years. “The biggest mistake that I made in racing, because those boats were crashing and killing people right and left,” he said. Danny survived his boat racing, picking up trophies and awards, and went back to being the boss of his own garage and sought after by all the local racers. He was never at a loss for fun things to do, and when he wasn’t dancing or building engines, he went fishing, walking, bicycling or hiking. In 1996 he was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame. He scored high every year for the Boat Racers Reunion Honorary Award, just barely missing being honored but a sure bet to win that one in the future. Danny began to lose his sight to macular degeneration, but that didn’t stop him from dancing or going to the local races and reunions. Sometimes I would stop by and ask him, “Danny do you want to go to the races with me,” and he would sometimes say, “I can’t, Richard, I have a hot date at the recreation center,” and he meant it. We went to the reunions with Rodger Ward, Ralph Foster, Ron Henderson and other men of that era. They would talk about their lives, their loves, their wives, and they had no regrets. “I had 6 wives,” said Ward. Henderson and Oakes had five, and they spoke lovingly of all of them. You could see that they had no regrets and their lives were full and meaningful. Ward left us a few years ago, and Danny on January 13, 2007, the day that the CRA (California Racing Association) held their yearly reunion, and an event that Danny loved to go to and bench race with his buddies. A chill breeze swept over the crowd that day, and we knew that another giant had passed on. A giant of a man, who was only five foot six inches, the one they called Dapper Danny, Poison Oakes, and Danny Smokes.